Analysis: USC coaching search casts shadow over season

Southern California is about to embark on a coaching search that will cast a shadow over the entire college football season.

Clay Helton’s time as the Trojans coach came to end on Monday, 11 weeks before the conference championship game will be played and with eight days left in the summer.

One of the biggest dominos in the sport has been knocked over.

“I want to be exceptionally clear: our university and its leadership are committed to winning national championships and restoring USC to football glory,” athletic director Mike Bohn said. “This decision represents our next step toward that goal in what has been a thoughtful and strategic process to build a comprehensive football organization equivalent to the premier programs in the modern landscape.”

USC appears to be serious about this statement. Since Bohn arrived in 2019, the school has invested millions in its recruiting department, assistant coaches and staff. The plan was two-pronged: Give Helton as much support as possible and, if he failed, the job would appeal to any coach in the country.

Who could be a candidate at USC? Outside of Nick Saban and maybe Dabo Swinney, there isn’t a coach who wouldn’t take a call from one of the few schools in the country capable of being a national championship contender.

Because of that, be prepared for about three months of rampant rumors and social media conspiracy theories about who USC is, and is not, interested in.

Is this the job that draws Bob Stoops back to college coaching? The former Oklahoma coach will be spending a lot of time in Los Angeles this season as part of Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” pregame show.

Mario Cristobal just registered maybe his most significant victory as Oregon coach, beating Ohio State with a team loaded with the type of high-end California recruits who have traditionally gone to USC. Would he be tempted to move south so he doesn’t have to persuade those players not to go to USC?

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell has a team poised to be in the playoff conversation and was hired to coach the Bearcats by Bohn. Could the former Ohio State Buckeye embrace a Hollywood lifestyle?

How about another Ohioan, Matt Campbell of Iowa State? Does the shine come off Campbell if the Cyclones don’t turn out to be the playoff contender they were hyped to be?

Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck would seem to have the personality to stand up to the spotlight. As does Penn State’s James Franklin.

The possibilities are endless and the USC watch will be relentless. Any up-and-coming coach who goes on a run this season will get sucked into the vortex of speculation.

What if it’s the Trojans who go on a run and reach the Pac-12 title game? Does that make interim coach Donte Williams a serious candidate?

Coaching searches have never been a more dangerous game for athletic directors.

They can get messy as leaks spring about who is drawing interest. The USC opening will no doubt be leveraged for contract extensions by coaches who never really wanted the job.

At some point, a coach who USC doesn’t want to hire will announce that he is staying put at his current school, a show of “loyalty” that will go over great with fans who get to boast that their guy turned down USC.

It’s not just about who replaces Helton. It’s also about who replaces the coach who replaces Helton.

“Over the next few months, we will conduct a national search for our new head coach. We will actively and patiently pursue a coach who will deliver on the championship aspirations and expectations we all share for our football program,” Bohn said.

USC is not going to win a national championship. It’s highly unlikely the Trojans will make the College Football Playoff. Even contending in the Pac-12 South might be a stretch.

None of that will stop USC from being the most talked about program in college football.


Follow Ralph D. Russo at and listen at


More AP college football: and Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: